In many pieces on this website, I have lamented the fact that we have no young movie stars. There are various reasons for this: films don’t hold the same cultural capital as they once did, intellectual properties took precedence over actors, TV has become so much more important, the list goes on. There are no more movie star runs we used to see all the time—think Tom Hanks winning back-to-back Oscars or Julia Roberts dominating in the late ‘90s. I claimed that Jennifer Lawrence is our last movie star in my review of No Hard Feelings. Last may have been too extreme a word because I had seemingly forgotten about Emma Stone.
Lawrence may a certifiable movie star and the success of No Hard Feelings is a testament to that fact, but there is no contest: Emma Stone is the actress of her generation, hands down. We are in the middle of Stone at the peak of her movie stardom and it’s so fascinating. I don’t mean to be hyperbolic, but with the choices Stone is making, we could very well be talking about Stone as one of the best actresses of all time when it’s all said and done. You could call her this generation’s Julia Roberts or Meryl Streep, but Stone has done such amazing and profound work that she deserves to be singular. From all-out comedies to big tentpoles to rom-coms and everything in between, she has done virtually every genre before turning 40 and made some of the strongest movies in their respective genres. She’s already won one Oscar and may be well on to win her second one. What she’s done thus far is fantastic and the future is even more exciting. All of this is to say we are witnessing movie-star greatness in front of our very own eyes.
Here are the 10 best performances of Stone’s career so far.
10. Cruella de Vil in Cruella (2021)
Cruella is not a perfect movie, by any means, but even when the direction and writing feel sub-standard, Stone elevates any product to a great extent. Thankfully, she hasn’t dedicated most of her career to franchises and, when she does venture into IP, it feels interesting and new. She fully immerses herself into Craig Gillespie’s over-stylized world and is having a total blast. Stone rocks every costume she wears and goes toe-to-toe with Emma Thompson, which is far from an easy task. But, when I think of Cruella, I don’t think of the glitz. I think of the scene toward the end of the film where Cruella monologues near a fountain. It is an incredibly effective monologue and Stone acts the heck out of it. The character goes through a roller-coaster of emotions and she captures every single one of them with aplomb. Do I want her to make Cruella movies for the rest of her career? Absolutely not. But, the fact she makes a performance as goofy and over-the-top as this feel so monumental (at times) is something you only see from the greats and Stone is comfortably one of them.
9. As Wichita in Zombieland (2009)
This is a personal favorite of mine—I adore Zombieland. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve seen this movie. It’s one of the best zombie movies of all time and easily the funniest one (sorry, Shaun of the Dead) and Stone’s Wichita is a big reason why. This is probably the first movie in Stone’s career where her character is a driving force in the story and she does not squander the opportunity. We already know Stone is incredibly funny and she does the comedy in Zombieland with ease. But with Wichita, Stone gets to flash her skills as an action star and nails it. She doesn’t do many more action movies after this which is a shame because she’s darn good at it. Her chemistry with her co-stars is on point which is a trend you’ll see for the rest of her career. She always seems to work well with anyone, no matter who is on screen. Stone is quite fun in Zombieland: Double Tap as well, but Wichita from the original will always hold a special place in my heart.
8. As Sam in Birdman (2014)
Birdman is a movie I have not revisited recently. With Alejandro González Iñárritu recent works being of middling quality, I wonder how much this holds up on a rewatch. I remember loving it and thinking Stone was phenomenal playing Sam Thompson. Michael Keaton delivers the performance of his career and Stone does not seem fazed at all. There are a multitude of talented and established actors in this movie and Stone’s performance is one that always gets singled out. She was nominated for her first Oscar and rightfully so. With a methodical director like Iñárritu and the whole gimmick of a one-take movie, this is not an easy movie to be in. But, relatively early on in her career, Stone challenged herself to work with accomplished directors and talented characters. She absolutely holds her own in a very strong performance and, while I do suspect the movie may not hold up as well on a rewatch, I know for a fact she will amaze me.
7. As Jules in Superbad (2007)
Talk about a debut. Stone is not the most important character in the masterpiece and best comedy movie of all time Superbad. She’s not even the fifth or sixth most important character and has maybe 15-20 minutes of total screen time. But, every time I watch Superbad, I realize we should not be surprised at Stone’s immense success. Even in such a small role, she leaves such a big impact, including an all-time f-bomb when Jonah Hill bumps into her nose. She’s quirky, has impeccable dialogue delivery, and has a girl-next-door quality many actresses from her generation just don’t have. This may be ranked too high and my love for this movie might be putting it higher up, but I think this being her first role is a big deal and seamlessly assimilating into the Apatow-Rogen-Goldberg world is a big accomplishment. I think it’s also hilarious that at the end of her career, Stone could have multiple Oscars and her first role will always be the raunchy comedy where she plays the girl that Jonah Hill’s character is trying to get with. This is why Emma Stone will be one of the greatest of all time.
6. As Hannah in Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Is this the last great rom-com? Is there a current actor-actress pairing that has better chemistry than Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling? There are aspects of Crazy, Stupid, Love. that haven’t aged well but one thing that’s aging better than wine is the Stone-Gosling of it all. This part of the movie is a crackerjack, swoon-worthy, and cinematic piece of filmmaking that we just don’t get anymore. These two stars have electrifying chemistry from the moment Gosling’s character flirts with Stone’s character at the bar. I mentioned the girl-next-door quality Stone inherently has and it’s on full display as Hannah in this wonderful motion picture. Her performance can be clearly traced to the Julia Roberts, Meg Ryan, and Sandra Bullock rom-coms, but she brings her goofiness to the performance that feels so genuine and unique. You can see it on display when she and Gosling are doing the Dirty Dancing lift and she is in disbelief (almost in frustration) at Gosling’s perfect abs. This character feels effortless for Stone and not in a lazy way, but in a way that shows you, she has the talent to fit her characters like a shoe with no problem. We need more rom-coms, period, preferably with Stone and Gosling at the center.
5. As Whitney in The Curse (2023)
So, this may be cheating a little bit since it’s not a movie and the show is still ongoing, but what a daring and interesting choice for Stone to do this. Let me be clear, I think The Curse is fantastic and I dread watching it every week. The show is, by design, uncomfortable because of the story and the situation the characters find themselves in. But, I just find it so fascinating that Stone wanted to do this show. Essentially, at this point in her career, Stone can be in anything she wants. I’m not surprised at her wanting to do a TV show, I just expected it to be more of a traditional prestige show like Mare of Easttown. This is such a weird show. It’s Nathan Fielder and Benny Safdie’s eccentric and uncomfortable world that Stone just felt gravitated toward. But, The Curse does not work without Stone’s methodical and excellent performance. Her character, Whitney, is thematically so complicated and you never know what her morals are. There are elements of white guilt with capitalistic ambition and performativeness all mixed in. The genius of Stone’s work is that she never lets you know how to definitively feel about Whitney. Are we supposed to root for her or hate her? I applaud Stone for doing this oddball of a show and I am enamored by her effort every week. She is asked to do some crazy things—as one would expect in a Nathan Fielder project—and she’s game for all of it (those who have seen The Curse know what I’m talking about). Sometimes bold choices can bomb, but for Stone, they seem to work more often than not, and it’s usually due to her talent.
4. As Olive Penderghast in Easy A (2009)
Folks, this is where Emma Stone becomes a true, bona fide movie star. This is an astounding performance and even more amazing when you realize she was only 21-22 when filming Easy A. I wholeheartedly believe she should’ve been nominated for an Academy Award as Olive Penderghast. You may be thinking, “There’s no way she was that good in a silly high-school comedy.” Think again, she is that good—scratch that, she’s even better than you remember. First of all, like rom-coms and other classic genres, we just don’t get good high-school comedies anymore and Easy A is one of the great ones. This one stands out because the central performance is so strong.
Typically, the high-school movies of today are going on Netflix and the acting is an afterthought. Here, Emma Stone delivers a funny, confident, powerhouse of a performance that holds the movie together. Olive is such a wonderfully crafted character. She’s likable, frustrating, erratic—just like an actual teenager. And Stone plays it like a real teenager. That may seem obvious, but often actors in these movies try too hard to be young and it often comes off as cringey. Again, Stone is an effortless actress and you never doubt that Olive is a high school student who gets caught up in a web of lies. All of Stone’s strengths—comedic timing, co-star chemistry, etc.—are on display here and I truly believe this movie changes the trajectory of her career. Easy A proved that Stone is simply too special to relegate to side characters and needs to be the lead of any movie she stars in. I dare you to watch the “Pocket Full of Sunshine” sequence and tell me she didn’t have a legitimate shot at winning Best Actress that year. Easy A is a good movie with an even better central performance.
3. As Abigail Masham in The Favourite (2018)
Throughout this piece, I have mentioned how Stone is firmly a leading lady who should be the central focus of any movie she does. So, naturally, one of her top three performances is one where she plays a supporting character. Even though Olivia Colman is the “main character” of The Favourite, this is a three-hander between Colman, Stone, and Rachel Weisz. Unsurprisingly, Stone steals the show as the opportunistic Abigail Masham in her first of many collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos. Working with Lanthimos allows Stone an avenue to blend her dramatic and comedic talents all in one. The Lanthimos style of dark comedy is a wavelength not all actors can get on, but Stone is a perfect muse for him. Abigail is one of the few times Stone is essentially playing a villain of sorts and she’s having a great time. Abigail is sweet as poison pie as she plans to win over the Queen in her mischievous and conniving ways. Her tête-à-tête with Weisz is a thrill to watch as these two women go to endless lengths to backstab each other. A lot of actresses in Stone’s generation who won an Oscar earlier in their careers (Anne Hathaway, Brie Larson) had disappointing follow-ups and are still working to get back to the choices that got them the Oscar in the first place. But, Stone’s career has been defined by unconventional and weird choices and this being one of the first movies she did after winning an Oscar for La La Land is so on-brand. I’ll elaborate on this later, but she is not afraid to do anything Lanthimos asks her to do in The Favourite. It feels like a cliche to say she’s a director’s actress but I truly feel that she will give 100% to get the director’s vision right. That year was a gauntlet for Best Supporting Actress—Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk is a wonderful choice—but I would’ve gone with Stone as Abigail. It’s a funny, evil, and ultimately sad performance that stands out every time you think about it.
2. As Mia in La La Land (2016)
La La Land is one of my favorite movies of all time. I could go on and on about the magic of this film and how much it means to me, but I’m going to focus on Stone specifically here in the role that earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. La La Land is an ode to the soundstage Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s and one of Chazelle’s masterstrokes was to cast modern actors of the classic ilk. This is another Gosling-Stone collaboration and the best of the three. Chazelle saw Crazy, Stupid, Love. and instantly knew that this pair could be Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And he was absolutely right. Emma Stone has the natural movie-star quality those classic actresses have.
Stone’s Mia is a struggling actress who has to work extremely hard to get to the top. I’m sure Stone herself had to work hard to get herself to this point and that effort is translated extremely well in the performance. But, it’s her dancing with Gosling while walking to her car or wearing colorful dresses with her friends as they get ready for a night out or standing in front of the movie screen looking romantically at Gosling in the seats, that’s what makes Mia such a memorable character. It’s an all-time cinematic performance in one of the all-time cinematic movies. I don’t know how else to describe Stone’s work in this movie other than it embodies what movies are all about. She’s not the best singer nor is she the best dancer, but none of that matters when she makes you believe that she’s the greatest actress on the planet. It’s all in her eyes and expressions that convince you of her acting prowess. Her dancing jokingly while Gosling plays at a party is screwball comedy. Her slow dancing in the stars with Gosling is swoon-worthy. And her pain when she cries to Gosling that she may not be good enough is heart-wrenching.
Many argued whether or not she “deserved” the Oscar that year. Stop it, stop all of it. This is a well-deserved win and one of the great Oscar wins of the last 10-15 years. In the iconic and will-bring-you-to-tears finale of La La Land, Stone doesn’t say more than two or three sentences. But as soon as she enters Seb’s and sees Sebastian, all of Mia’s love and pain is on her face and she conveys a monologue worth of emotion in a few looks. This is something not every actor or actress can do, which is why Stone is one of the greats. As she leaves Seb’s and gives Gosling that little smile, it says it all: not only is this one of the greatest moments in movie history, but that Stone was made for cinema. I will always love La La Land and Emma Stone is a big reason why.
1. As Bella in Poor Things (2023)
Call it recency bias, falling prey to the hype, whatever you want, this is the performance of the year (regardless of gender) and the single best performance of Emma Stone’s career. She has done so many characters with different arcs that ask her to do different things. Bella is a character that has to literally mature mentally throughout the movie. Bella in the first act of the movie is a completely different Bella in the second act, and so on. But, she has to retain a sense of individualism that still makes her feel like the same character. She is such a fascinating character and creation from Lanthimos and Tony McNamara and it requires an actor who can show Bella’s progression from baby to liberated woman without it feeling jarring or monotonous. We’ve seen Frankenstein movies before and Barbie just did this story in a candy-coated way. How do you make Poor Things unique? Answer: you cast Emma Stone in it.
What Stone does in this movie is flat-out staggering. Talk about fulfilling the director’s vision, I might say no actor has ever committed so hard to the director’s bit. Lanthimos asks Stone to do some wacky stuff in The Favourite, but it doesn’t even come close to the wonderful weirdness of Poor Things, one of the best movies of the year. She has to act like a baby/child in the beginning and she does the baby voice and mannerisms but that’s not enough for Stone. The way she moves and uses her body is akin to what a small child does. For her, it’s not enough to the bare minimum. If the character requires her to act like a baby, then Stone will submit to Lanthimos’ vision and become the most realistic baby you’ve ever seen. As Bella matures into a woman, she discovers sex and sexual pleasure. This is a very important part of Bella’s journey and, again, Stone does not leave a single stone unturned. There are many, many sex scenes in this movie, but it doesn’t feel gratuitous. A lot of them are laugh-out-loud funny, though they serve a purpose in Bella discovering herself. Most actors would not be okay with (literally) baring this much of themselves for a character, but Stone is unafraid to push the boundaries.
But, it’s the third act, where Bella explores the notion of philosophy, liberation, and feminism, that Stone’s performance comes all together. She takes us on this hilarious and thought-provoking journey of this character but it has to culminate in a satisfying conclusion. I won’t spoil the intricacies of the plot of Poor Things, but I couldn’t help but feel Bella’s arc being akin to Stone’s career. Stone has done a lot of movies, most of them worked and some of them didn’t. She knows what she’s good at, what she’s not, what she likes, and what she doesn’t like. Poor Things feels like the amalgamation of everything she has done so far. Bella is funny, serious, confident, powerful, curious, and talented, just like Stone. Lanthimos and Stone could be this generation’s Scorsese-DeNiro because these two just get each other. They bring out the best in each other and speak the same cinematic language.
The dialogue is so incredibly hilarious and Stone’s delivery of it has never been better. She shares scenes with Willem Dafoe, Mark Ruffalo (who gives a tour de force performance), Kathryn Hunter, and Ramy Youssef, and has wonderful chemistry with all of them. There’s a scene where she’s dancing in a ballroom without an ounce of fear, unabashedly that I can’t stop thinking about. The movements are odd but there’s an inherent cinematic quality of it. It’s the way the camera follows Bella dancing freely and I can’t help but imagine that with any other actor, it would be silly and pretentious, but with Stone, it’s a magnificent scene.
I had read a lot about critics and people lauding her performance and claiming she has never been better, and I wasn’t ready to take the bait. I felt it would be nearly impossible for Stone to top La La Land and, as soon as Poor Things ended, I was in awe and ready to admit I was wrong. This is such a weird movie—essentially Barbie for sickos—and I couldn’t have loved it more. This is a fearless performance, one only an actor at the peak of her powers could do with aplomb. Stone is the only actress in Hollywood who could’ve played Bella Baxter. This is how you cash a blank check for winning an Oscar so early in your career. Because of it, she may very well win her second Best Actress Oscar before turning 40. And she should, no actor or actress delivered a finer performance than Emma Stone as Bella Baxter in Poor Things in 2023.
Where does Emma Stone go from here? She’s done serious dramas, comedies, intellectual property, and won an Oscar. (She’s also an ace five-time host of SNL: check out her skits “The Actress,” “Posters,” and “Wells for Boys.”) What most actors strive for in their entire career, she has done before turning 40. That’s what makes the future so exciting for Stone. Since she has seemingly done everything, she can do whatever she wants. She can be bold and risky with her decisions and do them without any fear. Some of them might not work and that’s perfectly fine. I would bet a lot of money that, most (if not all) will work because of Stone’s talent alone.
My preference would be for her to work with one of the masters—Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, or Sofia Coppola—because they could tap into something that we might not have seen before from her. I’d love her to be an all-out villain or be in a John Wick-style action movie. The bottom line is, whatever Emma Stone chooses to do, I will be there first in line. And you should too, because she’s only getting better. There’s no debate on whether she’s the actress of her generation, she is. We need to start talking about Emma Stone as one of the best actresses of all time because, in a city of stars, she shines the brightest of them all.